Wilmington for Foodies: Groceries, Gadgets, and Gurus

27 01 2013

Now, I may be a bit biased in my views, but what I am about to share with you here are some of the best places to shop in Wilmington for foodies like me, plus a couple of folks you should know about who can keep you in the foodie loop.  That I happen to manage one of the stores I recommend may seem like a conflict of interest; since I am not being paid for my opinion, I don’t have any ethical qualms about it.  Chalk it up to confirmation that I love my job!  The opinions herein are strictly those of the author, and you know what they say about opinions.  Don’t take my word for it – visit these stores and judge for yourself.

Groceries:

If you live here, I am sure you are aware that we have an abundance of grocery stores such as Food Lion, Lowes Foods, Harris Teeter, The Fresh Market, even Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s that both opened last year.  Personally, I need nothing from Trader Joe’s, though I do stop into Whole Foods once every month or so for some bulk goods that I don’t find elsewhere.  Also, their produce is reasonably priced and includes hard-to-find items.  Their cheese selection is possibly the best in town, though it is expensive.  I do most of my standard grocery shopping at Harris Teeter – canned goods, paper products, frozen items, etc.  But the best in local produce at this time of year when the Farmer’s Markets are not operating is at La Huerta, located at 830 S. Kerr Avenue.

LaHuerta1LaHuerta2 LaHuerta3Spanish for “The Garden,” this wonderful place is a haven for delicious, fresh produce.  Also to be found here are some great Mexican-style cheeses, dried chilis and spices, cookies, canned goods, dried beans, and cured meats.  Much of their product comes from North Carolina growers and purveyors, so in many cases you are buying a local product from a local retailer – the ultimate in shopping and eating local.  La Huerta doesn’t have everything – if you want watercress and endive, you are not likely to find them here.  It is, after all, a Hispanic market that caters to the Mexican and Latin-American population of the area.  But a visit here will not disappoint you, and will likely inspire a meal or two as you gaze at all the lovely ingredients.

Among the unexpected treats I found at La Huerta recently were a delicious Oaxacan rope-style cheese  that had the texture of part-skim mozzarella and some lovely side bacon from hogs raised right here in North Carolina.  The cheese was super delicious when I baked it up inside puff pastry pinwheels – it seemed to be more flavorful melted.  The bacon I baked on a sheet pan to render off much of the fat, then dipped the crispy slices in melted chocolate and served it with a red Bordeaux at a wine pairing class last week.  Mm mm mm.  I also found green tomatoes in the dead of winter y’all, and you know what I did with those.  You don’t?  Where you from, Shug?

SaigonMarket1 SaigonMarket2 SaigonMarket3

From La Huerta, you can head up Kerr Avenue toward Market Street and visit Saigon Market & Tatyana’s European Delights in Kerr Station Village.  Saigon Market, 4507 Franklin Ave., is practically a landmark in Wilmington; if you like to cook and you live here for any length of time, someone will send you there for something.  I confess to sending a good many people there when they are in search of obscure or  Asian ingredients.  I personally go there as much for the experience as anything else.  I love to look at all the products, read what I can of the labels that may or may not have an English translation on them, and decide what strange new product I am going to take home to sample.  I haven’t had the privilege of traveling to the Far East, so Saigon Market is as close as I have been to an Asian cultural experience.  Also, they often have delicacies like quail eggs that you can’t find elsewhere in town.  The other eggs, the ones without cartons or labels?  You should really ask about those.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  I love pork Lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls) but not the laborious process of making them, so I buy the frozen ones here.  If you need chopsticks, or rice bowls, or those functional little shovel-style soup spoons used in Asian restaurants, they have those too.  Fresh produce is limited to the most common ingredients used in Asian cooking, but it is top notch.  Mung bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, bok choy and much more is cleaned and bagged on the premises, refrigerated and ready for you to use.  Open seven days a week until 7pm, Saigon Market is a feast for your senses!

Walk around the corner from Saigon Market and enter a little corner of Eastern Europe right here in Wilmington.  Tatyana’s boasts an unimaginable assortment of items for such a small space – pickled veggies of all sorts, beverages, candies, cookies, sausages, just about anything you can think of from tatyanasthe old country.  Fresh foods and baked goods are also available. Monday through Saturday 10am to 7pm and Sunday 12-5pm, Tatyana’s is ready to serve you with delectable treats from Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, and beyond.  If you don’t live here, no worries!  Tatyana’s website has a virtual shopping cart – they will ship to your doorstep.

Using La Huerta as our starting point once again, you can head the other way on Kerr Avenue, between Wilshire and Wrightsville Avenues, where you will find Tienda Los Portales.  This supermercado has a bevy of Mexican foods and products.  If you need masa harina for your tamales, LosPortalesSupermercadoor just better prices on grocery items (like crema or tortillas) than you can find elsewhere, give this store a try.  Pick up some fresh-baked cookies and bread, or a piñata to fill with candy for the kids at your next party.  It’s a little bit of home for the Latin Americans in our community, and the rest of us “gringos” are welcome, too.

A few more essential links:

Fresh Bread and Amazing Desserts:  La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries

Hard-to-find cuts of meat, yummy fresh-prepared foods, and much more:  Pine Valley Market

Organics, Vegetarian, and Vegan Specialties:  Tidal Creek Co-Op

Gadgets:

I have to tell you about the store I manage – The Seasoned Gourmet, located at 1930 Eastwood Road.  We don’t carry fresh foods like these other fine establishments; rather, we carry the tools and shelf-stable ingredients you need to cook at home.  We have a large assortment of kitchen tools and gadgets – I’m going to go out on a limb and say perhaps the largest selection in Wilmington.  Cookware, cutlery, bamboo boards and accessories, and bakeware abound in our modest space.  Oils, vinegars, seasonings, and flavorings anchor one section of our space.  We do a brisk gift basket business, and I know they are the best looking gifts in town because I have shopped around.  We hand-tie all of our gorgeous bows, and we build the gifts to your specifications.  Shipping and delivery are no problem.

TSG (598x800)Coffee & wine are a big part of our business, too.  We have a coffee club that is free to join and has been around since our inception in 1994; members enjoy a free pound for every 10 pounds purchased, any coffee combination, any length of time.  We offer fine coffees from Carolina Coffee Company which is roasted right here in Wilmington.  We also have a hand-selected array of boutique and small production wine, about 150 different labels on any given day, ranging from $6.99 to $289 per bottle.

The Seasoned Gourmet boasts an ever-growing assortment of local and regional products, from the iconic Goodness Gracie Heavenly Toffee Cookies to all-natural cookies for your dog from My Porch Dawg.  Mama Lou’s, Off the Hook, Outta the Park, Pluto’s, Bone Doctor’s, and Mother Shuckers are but a few of the sauces on our shelves.  8th Wonder Seasoning, Carolina Candy Company, Salem Baking Company, Polka Dot Bake Shop, Heide’s Homemade Buttermints, Old School Mill, Shirley’s Peanut Brittle & More, Cat Daddy’s, The Peanut Roaster, and Old Log Cabin (Berry Towne Crafts) are but a few of the other local products on our shelves. 

The Cape Fear Food & Wine Club, which meets at The Seasoned Gourmet, offers cooking classes and wine pairing classes to members and their guests.  In addition to store staff, the Club hosts some of the best chefs in Wilmington who offer recipes and instruction culminating in chef-prepared meals.  It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the folks behind the stovesIMG_1342 (478x640) at your favorite restaurants!  The Club is a one-of-a-kind offering in Wilmington, teaching classes in  a kitchen equipped with residential equipment, just like at home.  From hands-on techniques classes (knife skills, soufflés) to demonstration classes with themed dinner menus, the club has something for everyone who enjoys cooking.

We like to say that we are “Wilmington’s Complete Culinary Experience,” and we want every visit to our store to reflect that sentiment.  We have wine and food open for sampling nearly every day, so be sure to ask if you see something you want to taste.  The Seasoned Gourmet takes phone orders for gift baskets and many of our products can be ordered through our website, which is still under construction.

The prices are more than reasonable at all of these places.  I may be a store manager, but I live on a budget like everyone else these days, hence the crappy tree house apartment I complain about often on this blog.  These are the places I shop because they have the best product for the price, and I am all about quality.  I want the best value possible for my hard-earned money.  These stores offer just that.

Gurus:

For the up-to-the-minute scoop on what’s going on in the Wilmington Food Scene, two indispensable resources come to mind. Port City Foodies (@portcityfoodies), a blog hosted by the Star-News and driven largely by a hard-working guy named Paul Stephen (@pauljstephen), definitely has its finger on the pulse of all things food in Wilmington.  Another reliable resource is Liz Biro (@lizbiro, @lizbirofoodtours). This lady knows everyone who’s anyone in food in the Port City and can hook you up with a tour to see the best of the best in action.

That’s it for my insider tips to the best foodie finds in Wilmington for now.  Get out there and Eat Wilmington!





Retail Confidential: 10 Things Consumers Should Know

15 09 2012

I imagine there will be some folks with small businesses who won’t like me telling you what I am about to tell you.  But it is high time consumers got a better understanding of just how difficult it is to run a small business in today’s market, and why sometimes their prices are higher than the National chains.  This article does not begin to touch on all the variables and details, but will hopefully give you an appreciation of just how perilous it can be to own a business today.  Maybe it will encourage you to shop at the smaller stores like the one I manage more often.

If you don’t shop at independent stores, eventually they will be gone – right along with your choices.  Major Retailers (National chains, “Big Box” stores) do not care about you or what you want.  They are faceless, nameless money making machines, though they will pay lip service to how they value your business, when really they just value your money.  When they carry a product that doesn’t sell, they stop carrying it.  They don’t care that you like one brand of product better than another; it is all about the bottom line.  They are looking for products with the highest profit margins for the lowest investment and are often not concerned with quality.  That’s how lead-paint laden toys got into your kid’s mouths; they didn’t care enough to check the quality of the product, they just liked the numbers and the package so they ordered it.  Small, independently owned stores know that selling you a defective product – or a dangerous one – can literally ruin them.  So they seek out the best quality products to offer, and sometimes those things cost more than what the National retailers offer.  There are other legitimate reasons for higher prices at local retailers, so read on if you care to know just a few of them.

There is so much I could tell you that many of you likely don’t know, but let me just cover what I like to call my Top 10 Things Consumers Should Know about Small Businesses (that no one wants to tell you).

10. The Most Expensive Thing in a Small Business is the Staff.  People are the backbone of any organization, but much more so in a small retail business.  It is not easy to find the right people who can work at a small store and deliver great customer service every day while juggling myriad tasks.  They have to be smart and trustworthy enough to be at the store alone for periods of time and handle any and all situations that arise.  My employees have to fix the computer if it crashes, or use a handwritten sales receipt and a calculator if they can’t – and answer the phone, and wrap gifts, and clean, and help with ordering.  A cashier at Target only scans price tags, takes cash, and hands you change that they don’t even have to count.  They call a manager if they have a problem.  The caliber of person needed for a small business simply costs more, and the really good ones are worth more than you can afford to pay them, so sometimes you can’t get them to work for you.  Let’s conservatively say that for the average retail store that’s open 10 hours a day, six days a week, you spend $5,000 a month in payroll with one full-time and two or three part-time employees with your employer tax contributions and Unemployment Insurance (neither of which are optional).
9. The Second Most Expensive Thing in a Small Business is the Place.  The mortgage or rent for commercial spaces is very expensive.  In my town right now, a rented space in one of the ultra-premium shopping centers where you like to shop (the new, shiny, clean ones with the piped in music, ample parking, and great atmosphere) average about $25 per square foot per year plus Common Area Maintenance (CAM) charges of around $8 per square foot (that’s the money that pays for the parking lot and the music).  This is down from $35 and $12, respectively, about 3 years ago (but if you signed a lease 3 years ago, you are still paying those higher rates).  So if you have a modest size space (about 2,500 square feet), that’s $6,875 per month just to rent the space.  (Just to emphasize how expensive this is, that’s $3,400 per month for 1,250 square feet – the size of a small home that in our town costs an average of $1,000 a month.)  Add utilities, insurance, and maintenance (most commercial spaces make it the tenants responsibility to maintain the heating & air system, repair broken plate glass, and clean the windows), and you can easily spend over $8,000 per month for this house-sized space.  Even in an average, aged shopping center, you are looking at about $4,000 per month, and in a low-end center maybe $3,000.  Poor location is one of the top three reasons small businesses fail in the first 5 years, so it’s pretty important to be in a good place – but it will cost you.  Oh, and when a National retailer wants to put a store in a local shopping center, they generally get offered a much lower rate than small businesses because they have the star power – their name alone will bring traffic to the property, so it’s a quid pro quo that is supposed to help the little stores (even though there is no guarantee that if you are going to Target you will shop the other stores while in the plaza).  In this sick twist of economic karma, the big places with the high sales volume – who can afford to pay more – pay less rent than the little places with the small sales volume who can barely make their payroll.  (If you are doing the math as we go, we have already crossed the $10,000 mark on monthly expenses and we haven’t bought anything or paid the utilities yet.)
8. Many Small Business Owners have Bet their Houses on the Success of their Business.  Commercial Landlords generally require a personal guarantee for the lease of a business space unless you are a National chain.  Yes, that’s right.  Even if you have formed an LLC or S-Corporation, you probably have to sign a personal guarantee to rent the space.  This means that the owner of your favorite restaurant, hair salon, or boutique clothing store is quite literally betting his or her house on the business.  The guarantee allows the landlord to pursue a judgment against you in court if your business fails and you default on the terms of the lease.  Also, tenants usually have to pay to upfit a commercial space for their use (plumbing, electrical, walls, floors, paint, lighting, etc.) and many tenants take a second mortgage on their homes to accomplish this, unless dear Uncle Albert passed away and left them $100,000.  The average upfit of a new shopping center space of 2,500 square feet is about $100,000; modifying an existing space averages $50,000 here in my town.  Retail is not for the faint of heart – I’m just sayin’.
7. Maker’s Mark Taste, Old Crow Money.   If you are a small retailer or restaurateur, you want to offer the best products possible.  Today’s consumers want the best quality for the least investment possible.  The electronics age has fueled this mind set; big machines are producing our little machines by the millions and over time they have gotten really cheap because the volume of sales makes up for the lower profit per item, and the machine is cheaper than human labor.  Cellular phones are a prime example.  The best quality housewares, clothing, and food cannot be made by machines – they have to be handmade, hand fed, and organically grown.  The care involved in those processes costs a lot of money (refer back to number 10 above).  The dilemmas faced here are many, but let’s use this example:  A restaurant may have to decide between organic, local chicken at $10 per pound or mass-produced chicken from Tyson’s Noel, Missouri plant for $4 per pound.  How much are you willing to pay for your chicken parmesan dinner?  If they opt for the organic, they will have to charge you $22 or more to break even on their cost (once side dishes, gas for the stove, and labor are added) or sell it for $18 and not make their payroll (and we didn’t even add in rent and utilities).  So they opt for the mass-produced chicken to offer you a reasonably priced dinner and still be able to make their payroll and order more chicken.  Or they can pound out a few carefully butchered ounces of the organic chicken, portion out more pasta, and hope that you won’t complain that the portions are too small (you bourbon drinkers know exactly what I’m talking about – the choice between ample Old Crow on the rocks, or a little bit of watered down Maker’s Mark).  (Here, I could launch into how the National chain restaurants don’t make much of their food on-site and thus can sell it for less, but I am trying to stay focused.)  The only way a local restaurant can consistently offer higher quality ingredients and a talented staff to cook them properly is if you are willing to pay more for them and come back often.
6. The Crystal Ball is Broken.  Retail is extremely volatile.  There are certain well-established norms in the retail and restaurant industries, but even the norms sometimes don’t hold true.  For instance, Saturday is typically the busiest day in retail each week, and the busiest evening in restaurants.  This does not mean that every Saturday you will sell a certain amount of product, or that you will turn all your tables twice.  Some Saturdays hardly anyone steps into our store.  Why?  Who knows; weather, special events elsewhere in town, certain times of the year – like January – are notorious for being slow.  But on a given Saturday in May, no one knows why it’s dead.  If you do come in, I don’t know if I will have what you are hoping to buy; if I have it, I don’t know if you’ll like the color or brand or price.  In short, retailers and restaurateurs take educated guesses about what you might want and when you might want it.  We can’t have everything that will please everyone on every day.  We don’t have that kind of money or storage space.  Plus we are small and have a certain identity; if the name of our restaurant is Little Italy, are cheeseburgers a realistic expectation of us?
5. Special Orders Don’t Upset Us, But Impatience Does.  When is the last time you tried to get Williams-Sonoma to order you a fruit carving tool that isn’t in their inventory?  Did they look at you like you were an alien?  Did they have any clue what you were talking about?  If you came into our store, we would sift through some catalogs from our vendors looking for what you want.  We might have to call you back the next day, but we will research it.  When it turns out that the tool sells for $8 and we just spent an hour looking for it, we still order it for you even though we spent more than double the price of the item in labor to locate it.  But do bear in mind that our vendors have minimum order requirements so it may take us a few weeks to get it for you since we have to order $300 worth of product from them to get your $8 widgit and we operate on a tight budget and just don’t need more widgits today.  This, my friends, is called personal service.  You don’t get this at the National chains.  But it will cost you some patience.
4. We Don’t Tell You What We Pay for Products Because You Don’t Get It.  Wholesale pricing information is held pretty close to the vest of those of us in the trade.  This isn’t because we are setting out to rip you off and pad our checkbooks; this is because we know you don’t understand the complexities of the pricing structures and we don’t have time to explain it to each and every customer – and we are trying to keep the doors open.  I am explaining it now, through this blog post.  Are you listening?  Your $8 widgit cost us an hour direct labor plus the wholesale cost of the widget itself.  There will be additional labor to prepare the purchase order, pay the freight, verify the shipment when it arrives, unpack it, take the cardboard to the dumpster, receive the product into our inventory, print and apply the price tags, and figure out where to merchandise the other widgits on the sales floor.  Then we have to call you to tell you it has arrived and pay the fees for processing your credit card transaction.  Your $8 widgit cost us a lot more than what you paid for it.  But we are happy to do it for you to earn your loyalty; we are investing in you as our customer in the hope that you will come back and buy some other things from us and that eventually our investment will pay off.  I will tell you this much:  the percentage of profit is about the same for most of the products we sell in our store (package beer and wine has very little profit in it, so that’s the exception for us; by-the-glass beer and wine can be profitable for restaurants and they rely upon their bar to pay some bills, so have a drink with dinner).  You can rightly conclude, then, that if all we are selling are $5 and $10 items, we are not making enough profit to pay the bills unless we are selling a bazillion of them.  When you buy a set of cookware? That might pay half the electric bill for one month.  Buy more cookware.  Please.
3. Small Business Owners Don’t Get a Paycheck Every Week.  In fact, many small business owners don’t get a paycheck at all.  They take just enough money out of the business to pay their mortgage and expenses at home, and many don’t have health insurance for their families.  They have to live like this because it’s a never-ending cycle:  you have to have product to sell in order to make money; it takes money to buy the product; and round and round you go.  Why not cut expenses by closing in slow times, you say?  If my store is not open when you, the consumer, want something from us, you will go elsewhere and probably not come back because we are not open regular, reliable hours.  We do have seasonal hours based on those norms we mentioned earlier in number 6, but if there is no foot traffic on a given Thursday, I can’t just close and go home.  What about that one customer who comes by at 5pm?  The risk is too high.  So even when business is very slow and revenue is at rock bottom, I have to be open, pay my staff (because I can’t work 24/7), and order product for when you do come in to shop.  Sometimes there isn’t any money for the owner to pay themselves.  Imagine this situation continuing for a couple months (while you are on vacation and not shopping in our store).  Small business owners may have had some money when they started the business, but chances are they don’t have any money now that isn’t tied up in the business.  Why do they do it?  To be their own boss, to make their mark on the world, to forge a trail for others to follow, to follow their passions, to live out their dreams.  It is their chosen employment, but the pay and benefits suck.
2. When you Demand a Discount or Play the “Use and Return” Game with Products, You are Taking Food out of the Business Owner’s Mouth.  Literally.  Review numbers 3 through 10 above.  Restaurants probably suffer a bit more with this than other retailers, but we all deal with it.  Many National retailers have a policy that they will take any return you bring them, no questions asked.  They can afford to be liberal with their return policy because they have a volume of sales that renders the effect of their relatively small percentage of returns negligible to their bottom line.  What did she just say?  Big box stores are unaffected by you wearing a dress to a wedding and returning it for full credit, stains and all.  They can take it.  But when you do that to a small retailer, and get belligerent when they point out the stains on the dress you swear you didn’t wear, you box them into a corner – and don’t you know it!  You count on it.  The underlying threat is, “I won’t shop here anymore if you don’t give me my money back, and I’ll tell all my friends how rude you were to me, too.”  At a restaurant, this strategy is often employed thusly:  “Waiter, my <half-eaten> steak is over-cooked.  Please take it back.  Oh, and I want it taken off my bill.”  In that moment, retailers/restaurateurs must make a judgment call.  Me, I usually opt for the less-traveled road:  “Oh, I’m sorry that pan didn’t make your omelet the way you wanted.  But since you’ve used it and it has the marks to prove it, I cannot take it back and re-sell it.  Therefore, I cannot offer you a refund.  I will happily give you a gift certificate for $20 for your inconvenience.”  Go ahead, tell your friends.  I will not be held hostage by someone who clearly wants something for nothing.   I want you to be happy, but I will not be extorted – I simply can’t afford it.  Now if your pan had a manufacturing flaw, I will happily take it back.  But once you’ve used a perfectly good pan, you are out of luck.  If you eat half the steak and then complain, you should pay for it.  Period.  If you can’t afford to pay the bill, eat at home.
1. We Need You to Realize Our Dreams.  You browse my store and say how lovely it is and how you love my products.  Then you go to Bed, Bath & Beyond to purchase your cooking tools.  Was it something we did?  Was an employee rude to you?  Did we not have what you were looking for?  Was it the price?  Why didn’t you buy from us?  If you had taken a minute to tell me, I might have been able to apologize/re-train my employee/order you what you want/give you a discount.  Refer back to number 5 – the crystal ball is broken.  But we want to earn your loyalty and offer you what you need and want.  We cannot stay in business if you don’t buy from us.  If I can’t get you what you need, I might be able to recommend someplace that can.  Hell, I’ve even been known to give free samples of things to people to meet their needs when I am out of stock of a product and have a sample on hand.  I was out of butcher’s twine once and gave the guy a couple yards from my ball in the cooking school kitchen.  I will do almost anything I can to take care of a customer and help the owner of our store stay in business.  But if you don’t shop with us and don’t tell me what you want, I can’t do either.  Buy local, so that we can continue to offer you a choice.  The big guys will not ask you what you want, they will only follow the money.  We want to know you and offer you the best quality possible for your money.

Thanks for stopping in.  Please come back!








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